The white fuzzy dice swaying from the fuel system panel added the perfect touch of nostalgia as US Air Force Maj. Brad Salmi, the chief of standardization/evaluation for the 61st Airlift Squadron, taxied the C 130E out at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, on 1 May 2012 for its final flight. “This aircraft looks great, is in great shape, and still flies very well,” Salmi noted.
When the crew touched down at Edwards AFB, California, after a leisurely six-hour flight, the career of this C-130E (Air Force serial number 61-2358) had come full circle. What had been the first E-model off the production line in 1961 was now the last E-model to be retired from the active duty Air Force inventory. The aircraft, which had spent many years as a testbed at the Air Force Flight Test Center, was now, appropriately, going to be a static display there.
Development of the C-130E began in 1960 to tailor the Hercules design to fill a need for the US Air Force’s long-range logistics supply role. The goal was to give the C-130 transatlantic range while carrying a useful payload. The E-model featured a strengthened airframe structure to accommodate increased payloads. It also incorporated larger 1,360-gallon external fuel tanks located between the engines, rather than outboard of them, like on the earlier C-130As and Bs.
A total of 488 C-130Es were built from 1961 to 1974 on the then-Lockheed Georgia Company assembly line in Marietta, Georgia. E-model production eclipsed production of the C-130A and B models combined. The C-130E is still the second-most produced version of the Hercules, behind the 1,205 C 130H and H-model derivatives that were built.
In addition to the US Air Force, C-130Es were delivered new to eight international operators, including Australia, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. A number of other countries, including Israel, later obtained C 130Es through transfers or through secondary sales. A number of US Air Force E-models were modified for special missions or were converted into MC-130E Combat Talon Special Operations airlifters. Many of the international E-models are still in operation, as are some of the modified aircraft. Much like the milestone aircraft, the C-130E is still used for combat delivery missions by the 156th Airlift Wing, the Puerto Rico Air National Guard unit at San Juan.
When 61-2358 started down the assembly line, it was going to be a C-130B. When it came out the other end of the assembly line, it had morphed into the initial C-130E. It was also the fleet guinea pig. “This aircraft is a bit of a Frankenstein,” observed CMSgt. Sam Frederick, the 61st AS lead loadmaster, one of two loadmasters on the final flight. “A little bit of everything is on it or has been done to it.”
“This aircraft has had multiple modifications,” added Lt. Col. Dennis King, the instructor navigator on the final flight and the then-commander of the 61st AS. “It came off the line with the side-loading cargo door that was deleted on subsequent C-130s. Among many changes, it was modified with the high speed cargo ramp and door that was later used on the Combat Talons. Even though it was operational, it never went to Vietnam because it was doing test work.”
At the retirement ceremony prior to the last takeoff, Col. Brian Robinson, the commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, the active duty wing at Little Rock, gave a career summary for 61-2358: “After Edwards, this aircraft spent ten years at NAS El Centro [California] as a flying testbed for the swift-growing C-130E family. Eventually, it left the active duty to join the Air National Guard. Through the next three decades ’2358 served in states from Mississippi to California to Michigan.
“Then, in 2003, this aircraft found her way home . . . to the home of the Herk . . . where it joined the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 189th Airlift Wing,” Robinson added. “Most recently, this Hercules was transferred back to active duty to finish its career. As the oldest Herk in the fleet, she trained the newest C-130 students with the 314th Airlift Wing and rounded out her time performing joint and local training with the 19th Airlift Wing.” The 314th Airlift Wing is the C-130 aircrew and maintainer training wing, also at Little Rock. This particular C-130E also survived being tossed around the Little Rock flightline when a tornado hit in 2011.
The last operational mission for 61-2358, a local training flight, came on 16 April 2012. It landed Alpha One, the mobility world term for an aircraft that is 100 percent ready to fly again. “I know it sounds a little strange to give an airplane a personality, but it was almost like that aircraft knew it was its last flight,” Salmi stated. “It didn’t want to shut down.”
Robinson also credited the maintainers who kept the aircraft flying for fifty-one years, particularly the crew chiefs. “The crew chief is devoted to the aircraft. He is the one who keeps it in the air.” TSgt. Bobby Jones, 61-2358’s final dedicated crew chief noted, “I like working on aircraft like this. It tests your skill, and you use your training and experience. To me, it’s a lot better than typing a maintenance code into a computer.” Although the 61st AS will be transitioning to the C-130H3, Jones will go to another maintenance assignment, his days as a crew chief ending as he wanted—with the departure of 61-2358.
A crowd of about 200 people at the ceremony watched as the final flight crew was introduced. The augmented crew took their stations, and the four T56-A-7 engines were started for the last time. During taxi out, the aircraft was given the traditional water cannon salute from base firefighters.
When the crew shut down at Edwards later that afternoon, C-130E 61-2358 totaled 18,465 flight hours on its airframe and had made a total of 12,929 landings. It also had a replacement crash axe aboard—the original was presented as a memento to 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron during the retirement ceremony—a large box of maintenance records covering fifty-one years of service and the one nonstandard piece of equipment on the flight deck.
“The C-130E is like an old muscle car,” Frederick concluded. “It only has mechanical controls. It doesn’t have state-of-the-art avionics. And it required more troubleshooting on the part of maintenance to fix it. It’s called a legacy Hercules. I’d call it a classic.”